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Representative McCormack: You have contacted such as you could and wired the members of the [National Rifle] Association?

General Reckord: In each state, or practically every state, we have a state rifle association, and we advised a number of those people that the hearing would be held today. . .

McCormack: Did you ask them to write here?

Reckord: I do not recall the exact language of the telegram. I would say yes, we probably did. . . .

McCormack: Did you wire the people telling them what the recommendations were going to be to the committee?

Reckord: No. Except that the legislation was bad.

McCormack: And they blindly followed it?

Reckord: I would not say blindly.

    -- Exchange between Representative John W. McCormack (D-Mass) and General M.A. Reckord, executive vice president of the NRA, concerning the flood of mail members of Congress had received in response to an NRA message that erroneously claimed that pending legislation would lead to federal fingerprinting and photographing of all gun purchasers. /1/

When Harlon Carter took over the reins of the NRA in the "Cincinnati Revolt" of 1977 and announced that "Beginning in this place and at this hour, this period in NRA history is finished," /2/ he was serious. No longer would the NRA's primary goal be to serve the sportsman: Now it was to intimidate those who had the temerity to challenge it.

By 1983, the not-yet shot at President of the United States, Ronald Reagan would make a pilgrimage to the NRA convention to announce "May I just say we have great respect for your fine, effective leaders in Washington; Harlon Carter, Warren Cassidy and your Institute for Legislative Action. "/3/. Carter picked up on this theme: "I see an NRA with wealth and political strength and vigor, led by [the] ILA, an NRA . . . so strong and so dedicated that no politician in America, mindful of his political career, would want to challenge our legitimate goals." /4/ Gone were the objectives placed on the front of the NRA headquarters in 1958:

    Firearms Safety Education
    Marksmanship Training
    Shooting for Recreation
Now, carved directly into the marble was half of a Constitutional amendment: "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Carter wasn't a complex man. His view was simple -- every attempt at a gun control law was a step on the road to total confiscation and therefore every law had to be opposed with every resource the NRA could muster. He called it the "Potato Chip Theory of Gun Control," based on the Frito-Lay commercials with the theme "I bet you can't eat just one."

As Warren Cassidy, director of the ILA after Neil Knox, explained it in relation to the "cop killer" bullets: "The ILA would try to kill the issue outright in as many states as possible; if resisted we would attempt to substitute the NRA-supported language for mandatory penalty for misuse; if the substitution wouldn't fly, we would lobby for the most narrow definition of 'AP' ammo possible."/5/

The NRA's tactics are backed by certain natural benefits in the way they frame the issues and in carefully cultivated tactics that tend to play on emotions rather than reason.

Playing the Intensity Card

The NRA has managed to frame the issue as a (natural and divinely bestowed) "right." Political scientists and sociologists have long observed that there are certain natural attributes which make one feel more or less strongly about an issue. Expressed in a variety of forms, the basic concept is that one feels more strongly about an issue that affects one personally than about one that affects society as a whole and more strongly about an issue that takes away what one has than about one which bestows a new benefit. Within this framework, one feels most strongly about someone taking away a personal right to self-protection then one feels about providing greater safety for society as a whole. /6/

The NRA, by portraying gun ownership as a right with personal benefits that is being threatened with loss by the "gun grabbers" has managed to play to maximum strength of feeling. For the most part, the pro-control argument, by claiming a broad societal benefit, plays to the weakest. It is not without reason that many of the leaders of the pro-control movement are those who have suffered personal losses. (For example, Sarah Brady's involvement in HCI following the shooting of her husband, or Rep. Carolyn McCarthy's activism, following the death of her husband and wounding of her son in the Long Island Railroad shooting.)

While the gun lobby has a tendency to put a racist tag on the involvement of the soccer moms following Columbine, the mechanism, without the tag, is valid. Inner city shootings may elicit statements of sincere sympathy and concern, but the shooting at Columbine made the threat one of personal loss, eliciting a far stronger reaction.

But the NRA does more than use this natural tendency: it plays it to the hilt. After all, few proposed gun control measures would deny legitimate owners the ability to have a weapon. So the NRA continually reminds its members that the "real" objective is the taking away of some mythical right. /7/

To accomplish this end, the NRA has mastered the art of painting those who oppose it as villainous. For example:

    This week, gun grabbers Senator Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) unleashed their latest anti-gun initiative. Their bill ... would allow the BATF to set regulatory standards governing the design, manufacture, and "safety standards" of newly manufactured guns. /8/

While most folks would consider referring to the Sen. Torricelli and Representative Kennedy as "gun grabbers" a bit excessive -- especially when one is talking about safety standards -- the moniker has become a staple of speech in NRA-speak and, reinforces the belief in Carter's Potato Chip Theory. Gun safety is one step on the road to the total confiscation of all guns.

It is the constant barrage of "urgent" messages to members that keeps them active and ready to spring into action when called, even for something so silly as voting Rosie O'Donnell a hypocrite in an on-line poll. /9/

Getting out the Troops

Fueling intensity is not an end in its own. It is turning that intensity into action at which the NRA excels -- action in letter writing, action in "spreading the word," action in getting members out to demonstrate, action in soliciting funds and action in voting. And it is these last two -- money and votes -- that are the key to the NRA's ability to block legislation that poll after poll shows the overwhelming majority of the voters favor.

Unfortunately for the great majority of Americans, the NRA voter is a single issue voter -- and s/he follows the NRA lead in how to vote and in telling friends and neighbors how they should vote. While the NRA's power to influence elections is over-stated, it can and does, turn pivotal elections in marginal districts.

While the NRA has lost two major ballot initiatives in the late 1990's (Florida's Constitutional Amendment to close the Gun Show Loophole and it's $4.1 million effort in a special election to enable concealed carrying of firearms in Missouri), one of the earliest efforts of the "New" NRA at the state level was in 1982. The gun lobby poured $6.1 million dollars into defeating California's Proposition 15, which required the registration of all handguns and put a limit on the number of handguns in the state. While local polling organizations showed 38% of the state population owned guns, the same organization's exit polls showed that 48% of those who actually voted were gun owners. /10/. As the Washington Post reported:

    [Gallup Organization Vice Chairman Alec] Gallup argues that if Americans were forced to vote -- if they were fined for not voting, as in Australia -- gun control measures would win. But the passions are on the side of the gun-owning minority, who vote out of proportion to their numbers. Gallup found 18 percent of a national sample, in deciding how to vote, would give greatest weight to a candidate's stand on gun control -- and of that group twice as many opposed gun control as favored it. /11/

In the past decade, the NRA has won some public referenda -- most notably Washington State's Initiative 676, but it has has suffered major setbacks as well. At the federal level, the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 and the Assault Weapon ban (as part of the Omnibus Violent Crime Control and Prevention Act of 1994), demonstrated this weakness.

Since then, it was beaten badly in two very public state votes -- Florida's constitutional amendment to permit closing the gun show loophole (requiring checks on all buyers at gun shows, not just those buying from federally licensed dealers) and it's $4.1 dollar defeat in a single issue Missouri special election over a referendum to permit concealed carry in Missouri. (The referendum, initiated and promoted by the gun lobby was scheduled to optimize the benefit of the intensity single issue voters expected to support the referendum.)

One embarrassing election was the Senate vote on the Juvenile Crime Bill following the Columbine shooting. Here, NRA Board member and Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), in an effort to block federal legislation to close the gun show loophole, proposed an 11th hour alternative NRA that actually loosened the requirements for checks at shows and eliminated them for gun owners redeeming their guns form pawn shops. But he didn't quite explain it that way to his fellow Republicans and, when they saw what was actually in the amendment, they recalled the vote and reversed themselves, defeating the Craig amendment and passing one by Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ).

But the effort is a great example of the NRA's persistence. In spite of the passage of the amendment in the Senate, the NRA managed to block closing the loophole in the House and (as of this date) the bill is buried in a joint committee which is supposed to reconcile the differences. As any good lobbyist knows, there is only one way to pass a bill, but there are dozens of ways to kill it....

And the NRA has one other advantage. It's single-minded purpose is a long range goal, not a passing passion. As Harlon Carter noted in testimony before Congress, "We are here to stay." When Wayne LaPierre told the nation that President Clinton has "blood on his hands" in the racially motivated murder of of Coach Ricky Birdsong /12/, it mattered not that he was completely incorrect/13/. It got a lot of publicity and it played well with the NRA's core constituency. The correction came from the press, not LaPierre.


  1. Taken from: Robert J. Spitzer, The Politics of Gun Control, Chatham House Press, Chatham, NJ, 1995, pg 139  Back^
  2. Osha Gray Davidson, Under Fire, The NRA and the Battle for Gun Control - Expanded Edition, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA, 1998, pg 36.  Back^
  3. ibid, pg 39  Back^
  4. ibid  Back^
  5. ibid, pg 95  Back^
  6. See, for example, Spitzer, op cit, pg 3-5   Back^
  7. A most recent example, selected solely for the preparation of this web page, from NRA-ILA Fax Alert, Vol. 7, No. 22, 6/2/00:

      On Tues., June 6, the full House will vote on SB 237. This bill seeks to create a process under which a "civil restraining order" could strip you of your rights. Basically, that means should you get into a disagreement, though not necessarily a "physical" disagreement, with a neighbor across the backyard fence, or perhaps a total stranger, you could become subject to a "civil restraining order." That person could go before a judge, without you even present to defend yourself, and, if the judge believes that person's claim that you may pose a danger, your guns could be taken away.

    Delaware's SB 267 permits citizens to obtain an emergency restraining order against non-relatives. If the petitioner can demonstrate to the judge that there is an immediate risk, the order may be issued ex parte (without the testimony of the individual against whom the order is issued, but within 10 days, a full hearing must be held. If the person restrained owns firearms, the court may "[o]rder the respondent to temporarily relinquish to the sheriff, constable or to a police officer the respondent's firearms and to refrain from purchasing or receiving additional firearms for the duration of the order;" (ie, the 10 days -- longer if the order upheld after the respondent's defense is presented.)

    What is important to note is that the NRA's explanation appeals to a "right" being "stripped." Regardless of the dubiousness of the claim that a person judged dangerous to others has any such right, the NRA alert is written to maximize the "threat" and ignore the alleged benefit to others. (One can only wonder what would happen if the person seeking the restraining order were a member of the NRA, but one can be sure that story would not appear in the "Armed Citizen" column of National Rifleman.)  Back^

  8. For example NRA-ILA Fax Alert, Vol. 6, No. 8 3/5/99  Back^
  9. For example New Poll About Rosie O'Donnell's views on "gun control"  Back^
  10. Jay Mathews, "Gun Control: What Was California Saying?,", The Washington Post, November 14, 1982, pg. C7  Back^
  11. ibid.  Back^
  12. Marc Lacey, "N.R.A. Lays Responsibility For a Killing On Clinton", The New York Times, March 15, 2000, pg. 18  Back^
  13. LaPierre's argument was that the killer, Benjamin Smith, had attempted to purchase a gun from a licensed dealer and failed the background check and should have been arrested at the time, rather than able to buy the gun later from an unlicensed dealer. LaPierre was factually incorrect in that the state of Illinois runs the background checks for Illinois and didn't even inform the federal government that Smith had been denied a purchase until after his shooting spree and suicide. But LaPierre's claim is even more corrupt than that, as the NRA opposes checks on the type of sale where Smith did obtain his weapons and, in passing FOPA'88, made the test for successfully prosecuting someone who falsely claimed no impairments to a purchase that the actions must have been knowingly and willfully committed. Finally, the restraining order against Smith that blocked his purchase is exactly the same type of order the NRA is opposing as grounds for denial of gun purchases in it's amicus curiae brief in United States v. Emerson. If anything, the blood is on LaPierre's hands....  Back^

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©Copyright, 2000, Mike Rosenberg